Becoming a Runner

Like a needy spouse, running constantly asks me, “Do you love me.”

Of course I say, “sure honey.”

I’m no fool. But dammit sometimes running can be a bitch. Other times, the sweetest thing in my life. It hurts, it makes me grow. It is always there. Running and I have a complicated relationship.

There have been long periods of time I have completely sworn off running. Other times, running was all that mattered to me. One day after I watched the movie “Run The Sahara”, an awesome movie about 3 guys that literally ran across the entire Sahara desert, I decided I would run across the Golden Gate Bridge and back. If they could run two marathons per day for 80 days and as they said in the movie, running is 100 percent mental and the rest physical, then I certainly could run 18 miles. I hadn’t ran for months. I couldn’t walk for days. The brick wall called reality hit me in the face yet again.

Over the course of my 33 years, I have covered a wide range of the running spectrum. From sprinting the 100m in 10.58 seconds, to running distances as far as 18 miles, and everything in between. The funny thing is, I have never considered myself a runner. Often when I meet people they say I look like a runner. My retort is generally the following qualification: “well I’m not really a runner, I used to sprint in college, but now I just run to run.” Regardless of how many miles I was running at the time or what type of long distance races I had recently completed. I paled in comparison to what I consider a real runner. I didn’t believe I was a runner.

I had the good fortune of attending Chico State to finish off my collegiate sprinting career. This school has produced many prolific distance runners, including a national champion in the 5k, countless all Americans and conference champions from 800-10,000 meters. To give you an idea of the depth they had at the middle distances, my senior year the men finished places 1-5 in the conference in the 800m. All running sub 1:55. In 2007, standout star Scotty Bauhs ran a four minute mile. In practice. He and his teammate Charlie Serrano finished virtually tied for the Division II national championship in the 10k that year with a time of 14:08 and some change.

Between sprint efforts at practice I would marvel at the efficiency and sustained effort these guys were willing to endure. Despite the fact that I was a respectable sprinter, a part of me was always a little jealous and majorly impressed by what the distance runners were capable of. It always seemed mysterious and impossible. Who knows, maybe they thought the same thing of my ability to cover a tiny portion of the track extremely quickly.

The strange world in which distance runners reside is intriguing. They are known for doing things like shrugging off the concept of running 10 or 20 miles. Running consecutive 60 second quarter miles 20 times. Breaking a four minute mile. Or even running 100 miles. Or at the ultimate end running 2 marathons per day for 80 days like, Charlie Engle, in order to cross the Sahara desert. It’s amazing: the grind, the will, the perseverance. They are aliens.

Born in the Wrong Place?

My hometown Eugene Oregon (the track capitol of the United States) presented me with early exposure to these freaks of nature called distance runners. The University of Oregon has been home to many great runners. Jogging was practically born in Eugene. The legend of Steve Prefontaine is part of the grade school curriculum. As soon as I became part of a track team, I was around elite distance runners. My friend Erik Heinonen ran a sub 4:10 1500m at age 13. In those parts, It’s flat out in the water. Erik, the son of the Oregon women’s distance coach saw early success. He compiled countless race wins and put up great times at a young age. We developed side by side, me the sprinter and him the distance runner. At the 2001 Oregon state meet everything that mattered in both of our lives at the time would be put on the table. For the majority of that track season Erik was hampered by stress fractures that prevented him from training. I watched him run many times and his 6th place finish in the 1500m impressed me the most. Not the wins, not the personal best times I witnessed, but this loss. With no training he had to call on pure grit to will his way to the finish line. I haven’t talked to him since, so I can’t confirm the level of disappointment he felt there, but to me it was the greatest thing I saw at that meet. That moment. That feeling. That’s what I wanted to taste.

From Short to Long

But a distance runner I was not. I had no attention span. Also, I liked easy things. I noticed at an early age I was faster that everyone else by challenging kids to races on the breeze way. This would inform my decision to run the 100 meter when track started in the 6th grade. The funny thing is I could also run a 6 minute mile when I was 9. It’s human nature to take the easy way out. I played to my strengths and it’s simple math: why run a mile when you can run 100 meters? It worked. I won the state championships and got a scholarship to run in college.

Now don’t get me wrong, the work that goes into becoming an elite sprinter goes way deeper than the 10 seconds you see on the track. There are countless hours spent in the weight room, on the track running intervals and working on technique. When we see Usain Bolt cruise to a 9.58 100m it’s easy to think he’s just fast. But thousands of hours and sacrifices were made in order to accomplish that incredible feat of human performance. For both the long distance runner and the sprinter probably equal time is required to be good. These athletes may seem diametrically opposed. On the surface they may appear to be completely different species of animals. But similar shared traits lead to success in both classes.

What is required to win the events themselves couldn’t be more different. The adrenaline packed hundred meters is over in the blink of an eye. A true test of pure performance capacity. One false step your done. On the other hand the mile, the marathon and the ultra marathon unfold over long periods of time in which an athlete can break mentally and physically. The terrain, the competitor field, the weather, and many other factors must be considered. While the sprinter may lose the race before he steps on the track, the distance runners truly duel. Until recently, I’m not sure I fully appreciated this aspect of distance running.

A wise man once told me life is not a sprint it’s a marathon. Another wise man told me sprinting is a young mans game. Yet another wise man told me, if you want to get better at something find people who are where you want to be and do what they do. (I know, I know, I’m lucky to know so many wise men.)

For the last several years my personal battle with running has existed in a purgatory between the desire to be better at running long distances and the mindset of a sprinter. All out is all I know. If it wasn’t for a key conversation with one of the staff at my local running store, I don’t think I would have ever had a chance to actually get faster and more durable at running long distances. Quickly as amateur runners often do, I launched into  what I’m certain he considered a massively compelling story about all the miles I am running and the various distances I run each week. This led to me describing the various problems I have been facing with my body. Each time I run, no matter the distance I would try to beat my previous time at the distance. As the runs increased in length, I would decrease my pace. However, taken alone each one was an all out effort.

I’m sure he’s heard this story hundreds of times. Eventually, I stopped my rambling and he had the opportunity to drop a simple nugget on me that never had occurred to me before. He said, “when you lift, do you max out squats every day?” I said of course not. He replied, “that’s pretty much what you are doing with your running.”

Mind blown.

Sounds simple right? Frankly, the principle should have easily translated from everything I know about training other components of fitness. The concept is so against my nature that my instinct was not to adopt that philosophy. Honestly, I never really looked into what is required to become a runner. I figured you just run hard for some distance, extend the length and repeat until you get better. Also, because the greats are so far away from where I currently am, it has always seemed like a pointless endeavor to peruse the marathon for example in earnest. That excuse, combined with the fact that I have allowed my perception of my genetic package to set the limits of what seemed possible, prevented me from putting a lot of time into running with the intent of actually get better. I love to run, I love to improve, but it’s not exactly critical to my life. And after all, I will never be the best at it, so why try.

Finding a Coach

When I started obstacle racing I realized the playing field is slightly more level. Because of the nature of the sport, I had a decent chance to climb the ranks. That is of course only if I get more proficient at running longer distances (and carrying buckets and all sorts of other horrible things, but that’s an entirely different subject.) Which takes us back to my third wise mans statement: if you want to be good at something find someone that is where you want to be and do what they do. Enter my coach Brakken Kraker.

Another huge problem I have always been up against is my raw top end speed allows me to be faster at say a mile, for example than most people. Some may say I would “fake it” to a decent time in a 5k relative to other slightly above average runners. I must admit I derive a certain sense of accomplishment and joy out of being moderately good at running longer distances, but I can’t help but compare myself to guys like Scotty Bauhs or Charlie Serrano. This means if I improve my 5k time, that’s cool, but the first thing I do is compare that to people who are legitimately good. I apply the same philosophy to pretty much everything in my life. This is certainly both my source of any objective success and persistent moment to moment peril.

For example, in my first Spartan Race I placed 143rd out of 5,380 participants. Some might see that as pretty good. It’s like top 3 percent. I see it on it’s end 142 people beat me. Experientially, I had an amazing time at the 2014 ATT park sprint. In retrospect, that day completely changed my life. After I crossed the finish line I committed to winning one of these things one day. The problem is they are essentially distance races. If you are still reading this you should know that I am not a distance runner. Therein lies the problem. Throw in countless other factors that make up obstacle racing, I’m met with a perplexing conundrum. I’m decent at this, but there are a millions things I need to get much better at if I ever want to be good or great. That’s probably why my level of engagement has only increased as time has passed. Each race exposes a weakness and gives me a new set of problems to work on. Obstacle racing is the ultimate litmus test for general speed, endurance, strength, agility, grip and grit.

Ok back to Brakken. He is an elite Spartan Athlete and a member of the Spartan pro team. I had a chance run in with him after the Pacific Northwest Sprint in August 2015. As part of the NBC TV coverage series, this race attracted many of the top athletes in the sport. Legends in my eyes. Post race a few of the truly elite where mingling after they destroyed the fast motocross track with high obstacle density.

Hobie Call, who will go down as the babe Ruth of OCR if it lasts another 20 years, off handedly mentioned Brakken writes workouts for people and trains them remotely. I stored that in the back of my mind, but at this point in the year, just 2 months from the Spartan World Championships, I didn’t think it would be a good idea to completely change course in training. Then World Championships happened. The course destroyed me. A week later I reached out to Brakken to check up on the coaching he offers, because clearly what I was doing was not working. I had taken myself as far as I could.

Humility and Patience

It’s a big step for me to be humble and take direction from another when it comes to fitness. Humility and patience seem to be important aspects of distance running. Humility and patience often elude me. For a sprinter being cocky and posturing is virtually key to success. The posturing, the chest puffing, all of that goes into getting into your opponents head. Creating a small bit of doubt or tension before a sprint race can virtually win it before it starts. The battle in longer races seems to be with the course and less with the other people on it. That is until the Golden Gate half marathon, which is the first time I have truly raced for a win in a distance longer than 400 meters.

At any start line I always size up the field to see what type of runners are in it. Usually I can spot the ones that take it seriously. Their steely eyed warm up strides give them away. For the most part, I am content to just run my pace and enjoy the race. I fear getting out too fast and blowing up. Today was not an exception. As we started the initial 830 foot climb over the first 1.5 miles, to my surprise I was actually hanging with the leaders! Still I kept my head down and stuck with my own pace and kept an eye on my heart rate monitor to try to avoid redlining. With the nature of this course, it was no surprise the field thinned quickly and the leaders where established within the first 2 miles of the 13.2 mile course.

Because of my background as a sprinter, I have always had an image of myself at these races as having no business being out there. They have never been a race to me. The trail races are more of a way to test myself in some cool scenery and run free on the trail without worrying about getting lost. Each race I have done I have sat behind the lead pack content to run hard and finish. This time was different. I have spent so much time climbing I figure I am better than the average person at that. My coach Brakken Krakker has me running fast and doing all sorts of well designed workouts. My confidence as a runner is higher than it used to be. Given that, I still approached the race humbly because even the course has a way of breaking your soul, let alone the other competitors and what they bring to the table. For some reason going into the race in the back of my mind I had a feeling I might have a chance to win.

Early on 3 of us shot up to the front of pack. After the first decent I was in second place by about 100 meters. The leader showed high proficiency on the downhills and seemed to be a good climber. When we arrived to the second climb the hunt began. This gradual steady climb crushed me the last time I was on this course about 2 years ago. On this day it fueled me. I watched him as he walked then ran, walked then ran. Knowing I could probably make my move and pass him during this ascent. I would wait. I’d wait until he was more fatigued and the pass would require less energy. This would be during the final descent 5 miles later. He was clearly wounded or redlining. Either way it simply didn’t make sense to make the move then. In my mind I’m telling myself, “you are going to win this race, you are going to win this race.”

Over and over. All I had to do was wait. When mile 9 rolled around I knew it was now or never. The climbs were behind us, the only question left to be answered was do I have enough left in the tank to get the win. The answer: yes.

It was a strange feeling crossing that line first. Despite my work ethic, I have always taken the easy way out. I identify things I am already good at and work them to the bone until the panicle. In some ways that is smart, in other ways that is limiting. Taking that approach doesn’t put your iron in the fire. It doesn’t make you a new person. It will only accentuate what is already there, weaknesses be damned.

Becoming a runner is an odd pursuit. On one hand inevitably others will be involved, on the other it’s just you and the miles. This trail by miles puts all of your strengths and weaknesses on the table. It’s a place of reckoning. It’s a timeless place where millions have been and is paramount in what it means to be a human. Some argue that running spurned the evolution of our brains aways from other primates. Others say that is rubbish. There is no real way to know. But I don’t think anyone has said it better than Bruce Springsteen:
“Tramps like us, baby we were born to run.”

While I’m not at the level of Charlie Serrano or Scotty Bauhs at least now I have a glimmer into what their world is like. Slowly but surely I am becoming a runner. Patience and humility are constant endeavors. Kind of like becoming a runner.

Written by elijahn5@gmail.com

Hello, My name is Elijah Markstrom. I am a personal trainer and fitness coach. I live a dynamic life and I love to give people access to how they can live a dynamic life as well!